Phrases or Words Strategy


Read a good article-

Anyone have a strategy with the split between learning words and learning phrases? What is the author’s new insights with respect to this?

Also, what if instead of learning random phrases -as you go along and run into key grammatical patterns such as the ba construction or the de construction you make Anki cards with 10 good example sentences (especially for the major grammatical patterns) and you “speak” translate them into Chinese as a distinct review session. (for convenience maybe put all 10 sentences of a particular topic on one card)

Has anyone figured out an effective method regarding this topic? I’m about 1,000 words in and was considering pouring in phrases from my Lonely Planet phrasebook around this time - however, I’m thinking the above strategy might not necessarily be “phrases” but help intuit “fundamental structure” in a way that is a little more targeted than random phrases because you’re obviously cognizant of the grammar structure being tested as well and especially if you focus on the major grammatical patterns. (maybe it’s also effective with the less common ones, but I think focusing on the major ones at least is a no brainer for some learning styles).


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I kind of already answered your question because I wrote the article you linked to, but I think the question needs to be answered in a bigger context. I have mainly used vocabulary apps to increase passive vocabulary as quickly as possible. I added almost 30,000 items (characters and words) when I studied full time. That’s unique characters/words, not different cards (writing, definition, etc.) for the same characters/words.

That approach makes sense if you’re also reading and listening a lot, because you then learn how to use all these characters and words in context. It’s not enough to read your textbook and listen to a podcast here and there for this strategy to work, though, you need massive amounts of input. I read 25 books in Chinese in 2013, for example, and that only counts books, not articles, single book chapters, reports etc…

Then there are those who swear by sentence-based approaches with SRS (spaced repetition software), including cloze deletion in paragraphs and so on. The difference is that now you’re putting a lot of your reading practice along with vocabulary learning in an app.

Does that work? Sure it does, it’s just a different way of using learning tools. Maybe it works better if you can’t or won’t rely on heavy listening or reading (i.e. you plan to learn how to use things through active recall in an app, rather than listening to the radio and reading books).

You could use both approaches at once, which is probably the best approach. Focus on sentences if there’s something on the sentence level you want to learn (such as what objects go with which verbs, or sentence patterns in general), but focus on words if they are easy to use (you don’t need a sentence to learn 桌子).

There’s also the matter of how much information to process on each flashcard. Do you want it to be blazing fast, going through twenty or more cards per minute? Or do you want to spend a few minutes reading a paragraph on each card?

Personally, I don’t want to spend hours in an app reading cloze deletion sentences. I’d much rather have very fast reviews focusing on passive vocabulary, then use other means to learn how words are used. Massive amounts of listening and reading have many, many advantages beyond vocabulary acquisition, so it’s advisable anyway.

The only exception for me is handwriting, which can’t be done passively, meaning that if you care about being able to write by hand, you have to use active recall of some kind, which is why I still spend significant amounts of time in Skritter! I have described what role Skritter plays in my end-game strategy here:


Right - I’ll check out that article as well. Writing will be a priority down the road ( I don’t know what justifies it yet though - because it is artful?). You said you use vocabulary apps to increase passive vocabulary yet you don’t rely too much on cloze deletion (which would come from apps [cloze deltion pro for example]). As far as I was aware cloze deletion is one of the signature ways to add a “passive vocabulary” because for the given word you are studying, the surrounding words you’re “passively” taking in. If you’re just learning words, but not in sentences, do you consider that “passive”? It still seems a little active.

I personally, at the moment like to go slow and steady (not really my choice anyway), just because when I learn a new vocab word, I then hear and read it in various contexts. So with your “passive” acquisition of vocab in “apps” it must mean, you’re not doing more follow up with that particular word at the same time you study it. That would be an interesting approach. It might be a timing thing for when to “get off the skis” and pour on a bunch of vocab without necessarily seeing it in context.

I like the massive amount of input strategy. But with the pace I’m going I’m already suffering from decision fatigue. At ballpark 900 now, but will easily have 10,000 within the year. I’m sure expert/semi expert language acquisition people would go faster, designing and structuring your own effective study regimen.

I use “passive” in the sense that you would learn what something means, but not how it’s used, as in “passive vocabulary”, which refers to words you can understand when you see or hear them, but not necessarily come up with yourself if you need them in writing or speaking.

Building passive vocabulary is considerably easier, because recognition is much easier than recall. Thus, it can be achieved much faster (hard to quantify, but probably several times faster). However, what most people actually want for core words of a language is of course active vocabulary (otherwise you can’t use it yourself). My strategi was to use flashcards for passive vocabulary and use other means to make it active. So, cloze deletion is pretty active, actually, because you don’t see the right answer, you have to come up with it yourself. In contrast, if you see the word in question and is asked what it means, that is also active recall, but not of the word in question, but of its meaning.

Recalling a word based on context is much more active than seeing that word and being asked what it means, is my point.

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I am very very lucky in that I have Chinese friends who are willing to keep a correspondence with me, whereby I send pics of handwritten letters to them over Line or WeChat, and they respond in text. It is a lovely old-fashioned form of communicating that is much richer than keeping up contact with minimal messaging on apps or FB. We really talk to each other, about highs and lows in our lives.

For this to work, I insisted that nobody try “correcting” my letters because I didn’t want my correspondence to become a chore for them - I wanted real friendly communication, not to turn my friends into teachers. And I just needed to practice. Nevertheless I am lucky that one friend is so delighted by the effort he actually enjoys responding with corrections, despite my protestations. But that’s because he is tickled at playing at “teacher” so that’s ok.

Before I came up with this idea and before I was able to write well enough to do so, I started out by beginning a Chinese-language diary. It was a great challenge at first, but it allowed me (over the course of a year!) to practise the handwriting and recall of words that I needed to use to convey my everyday life.

There are no easy solutions - I hope these suggestions help someone else.

By the way, I’ve noticed in my correspondence that native speakers increasingly are having trouble with writing characters also - with all the input apps used now, even native speakers rarely use their handwriting skills. They’re misusing radicals and components too, at times, and forgetting how a character is actually composed. It’s a problem across the board.


I think I understand. You just added a lot of vocab without context, and then would later run into the words in the sheer quantity of reading and listening you would do.

Instead of running into the word while reading or listening, and then adding it to your vocab list. What I meant by cloze deletion being “passive” was not the word being studied. But the other words in the cloze deletion sentence that are NOT being studied, those are the “passive” words.

Still perhaps better than using something like a single sentence cloze deletion app, perhaps something like Du Chinese, is a little more powerful and memorable input for passive words. Just want to be specific - I think Du Chinese > Cloze Deletion Pro because you can relisten reread those articles inthe same way you can SRS the single sentences from Cloze Deletion Pro.

You’re massive amount of input strategy is interesting. I’m just not super confident.

Take the following example for the principle wei construction:
A: She borrowed five thousand yuan to buy a car.

She got up very early to cook breakfast for me

I might want to memorize these 2 example sentences a beginner, just to be that much more conscious of wei le in the first instance meaning “in order to” and in the 2nd instance, meaning purely “for me”.

I think I might need to actively remember these patters if I’m ever going to have confidence speaking them/internalizing them. I think this would cover “wei” though (don’t need to memorize excessive examples).

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yes, you hear that about the writing system. That makes sense. Maybe there is some kind of redeeming cognitive benefit to really learn how to write. But I think sometimes, it can cause the progress to be too slow if you’re first starting out. Unless you have naturally some innate spacial recognition/artistic skills.

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I think the example you picket ranks among the top ten hardest to get to know characters (为/爲), so it’s maybe not a good example of the approach I used. I did study lots of sentences as well, especially for grammar. I would say that beginners should always put emphasis on studying sentences, because that teaches not only vocabulary, but grammar as well. Once you reach a level where basic syntax is not a problem, the main struggle with listening is reading is the vast amount of words native speakers use that you have never heard. That is what my approach was meant to solve. I had studied Chinese in a more traditional manner for about a year before I even started doing that!

I also want to point out that vocabulary and immersion were not done one after the other. I did these things while also taking classes and spending lots of time talking with people. It’s all about balancing learning activities based on your situation and your goals. In general, though, students spend way too little time on reading and listening, and when they do, they tend spend the time with intensive reading/listening, meaning that each sentence is a struggle. Most people I studied with had hardly read any Chinese outside of their main textbook after the first year, for example, and this is not unusual.


I have found useful what you said, I believe understanding the characters through their context could save me time of memorising and use reading activities to understand the nuances of the words.

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I am starting with words now (starting from zero I mean), will do that till I know all characters AND words used for HSK 1+2 (I know you don’t necessarily need to know the meaning of all seperate characters, but I found I somehow feel a slight unease if I don’t know the character, it helps me give a word a place somehow, not sure how to explain and seperate from that I use a PDF for handwriting practice that works per character for the HSK level). Then I plan to study phrases and grammar for HSK 1+2 and just reach that level in all aspects. When I am at that level I plan to start learning the hsk 3 characters and words first, then the phrases and grammar. After that the same for HSK4, and so on.

This is in part because, as a beginner, going with phrases will just result in you having to look up every word anyway. And in part because in total it might not be the quickest method, but you first can have a steady pace going through the words, making you feel good, and then you can go with quicker success through phrases. That just releases more dopamine than plowing through phrases directly :zipper_mouth_face:

Also, it is nice to mix things up. Don’t study words every single day, but have a clear target of when you can stop with words for a while. Same for phrases.

Of course, it will be different for you as you are more advanced, might not have as clear targets (though I learn Chinese mostly out of personal interest, I choose to go with HSK for career reasons), etc.


I also agree that studying the parts makes it easier to understand the whole, or at least the words make more sense in a weird way when you have studied the characters.

Breaking down words into individual characters can certainly help make the meaning stick more, and give you a deeper sense of how and why words are the way they are.

John and Jared talked about this on a recent “You Can Learn Chinese” podcast episode, which was part of the learning how to read Chinese series.

Worth a listen if you’re into Podcasts (especially ones about learning Chinese).



I don’t remember which of the last four episodes it was a part of, but all of them are worth a listen as they discuss a path to reading fluency. @SkritterOlle was also interviewed on part 3/4, which was a lot of fun!